By Ted McIntyre
From striking temporary creations to inspired permanent displays, Ontario builders know how to make a public scene
18 Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, a whimsical bronze sculpture often causes passers-by to pause and reflect on the story it tells about new immigrants to Canada. Colourful alien-like creatures have been the subjects of numerous social media posts at 155 Redpath Ave. in the city’s midtown. On weekends, a folk-art carousel in Downtown Markham gives the young and young-at-heart merry-go-round rides. These are just a few examples of public art installations that have enlivened neighbourhoods, sparked conversations and spawned a thousand selfies, brought to you by builders and developers.
Under Ontario’s Planning Act Section 37, municipalities can allow developers to increase heights or densities of buildings in return for community benefits such as parks, recreation facilities, affordable housing units or public art. Toronto followed the lead of major U.S. cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago to implement the Percent for Public Art Program in 1985. Administered by City Planning’s Urban Design section and embedded in the approval process, it recommends that a minimum of the 1% of gross construction cost of significant developments be contributed to public art. The developer can direct funds equal to the public art contribution to the city’s pooled Public Art Reserve Fund, or for city-supported public art.
Developers typically hire public art consultants to navigate the process and understand city requirements. One of these consultants, Public Art Management, has worked with numerous developers, connecting them with artists, determining what installations are appropriate and helping secure approvals. Ben Mills of Public Art Management says his company is brought in early to view the site, discuss opportunities with the developer and get a feel for the budget, and is involved through to final installation. A public art piece may be a free-standing sculpture, integrated into glass, paving or architecture, or may involve digital screens or lighting.
Mills said Toronto is a world leader in the amount of public art commissioned since the 1990s. “Mississauga and Vaughan are also going gangbusters and Markham has really embraced it and we are seeing the benefits of these things for developments.”
STEPS (Sustainable Thinking and Expression on Public Space) Public Art also assists developers. It is the only national public arts-focused charitable organization in Canada and has worked with developers since 2013. It has delivered public art services for more than 150 clients, including Tridel, Daniels and CentreCourt.
“We are seeing more and more developers wanting to do more than the bare minimum and integrate public art,” says Anjuli Solanki, STEPS program director. “They want to build a community and use public art to do it. Most developers are keen to work with local artists and are using art to foster community engagement. It’s really wonderful to see.”
Solanki said STEPS works primarily with GTA-based clients, but increasingly is working in mid-sized and smaller municipalities to develop cultural plans and with developers to provide public art.
“Public art is an obligation for developers, but I believe they do appreciate and understand how this can make a development more meaningful,” says Jeanhy Shim, a board member with Waterfront Toronto and president of independent housing research and consulting company Housing Lab Toronto. “We need more than just buildings, and public art adds surprise and delight for people walking down a street.”
Mills says such works can be like a bookmark or point in time, such as Between the Eyes, a 1990s steel sculpture by Richard Deacon that resembles giant egg beaters at the World Trade Centre condo in Toronto. British-born Deacon is considered one of the most important sculptors in contemporary art. Mills says pieces such as Douglas Coupland’s Red Canoe in Canoe Landing Park at Toronto’s CityPlace have become neighbourhood signifiers—“Meet me at the Red Canoe.” Concord Adex, developer of CityPlace, has likely commissioned the most public art of any developer in the country, says Mills.
Welcome to the new world
Lanterra Developments’ chairman Mark Mandelbaum and president and CEO Barry Fenton, both avid art collectors, get involved in the process at their condominium projects. Lanterra’s first public art initiative was Immigrant Family, a 2007 bronze sculpture by Tom Ottnerness in front of 18 Yonge condominiums. It tells the story of people coming to the new world and looking outward toward the future. Since then, Lanterra has done approximately 10 other installations. Art, in fact, is the inspiration for one of its latest projects, Artist’s Alley. The mixed-use condo, steps from downtown Toronto’s famous art corridor, will include a pathway connecting Simcoe and St. Patrick streets, lined with shops, cafés and, of course, art. Fenton, Mandelbaum and interior designer Alessandro Munge of Studio Munge travelled to galleries, museums and auction houses in New York and London to find design inspiration and to select artwork to display for common areas. Lanterra has also partnered with internationally acclaimed British artist Ryan Gander and OCAD to create an outdoor piece for the development.
Julie Di Lorenzo, president of Mirabella Development Corp., (the evolution of Diamante Development Corp.), says her company wasn’t required to provide public artwork at Mirabella Luxury Condos at 1926 Lake Shore Blvd. W., but saw the opportunity to use a large swath of concrete wall facing the Gardiner as a canvas to inspire and educate passers-by about the area’s biodiversity. Artist Jennifer Macklem was commissioned to create Motion in Air (Ma), a 12.5m x 120m mural made of 500 custom-printed recyclable aluminum panels.
“I think people passing by are immediately surprised, as you don’t expect to be attracted or entertained by a facade of a condo building,” Di Lorenzo says. About 100,000 commuters on the Gardiner Expressway see the mural every day, as well as GO Train riders.
Toronto’s Lifetime Developments principal Brian Brown enjoys selecting an artist collaborator for each of his firm’s project. Recent examples include celebrity photographer George Pimentel, whose photographs will grace Oscar Condos’ common areas; artist Matthew Del Degan, whose Lovebot sculptures and murals will be found inside and out at XO2 (Lifetime and Pinedale Properties); and street artist Daniel Bombardier, who created a 20’ x 50’ mural at the XO sales office at 1221 King Street West to reflect a “strange love story.” The artwork is down now that construction has commenced, but will be repurposed into the completed XO condo building.
“We believe in supporting great talent in Toronto to tell a story, capture the essence of the neighbourhood and to add an extra creative layer to our buildings,” Brown says. Lifetime prefers artwork at ground level, where people can interact, look and touch. Artists are included as part of the project team; their artwork becomes part of the branding and helps distinguish the uniqueness of each project.
Last year, Rogers Real Estate Development Ltd. and Urban Capital Property Group announced a $500,000 contribution to commission new artwork for M City, an eight-tower, 15-acre, 4.3 million sq. ft. community being developed in downtown Mississauga. They also commissioned new windscreens by Canadian artist Ed Pien, selected through an invitational contest held by the city’s Public Art Program.
“Public art is an important element of what makes Mississauga a vibrant, creative and innovative city,” said Mayor Bonnie Crombie in a press release, adding that such partnerships with developers help advance the city’s goal of being an arts and culture hub.
Galleries without walls
The Remington Group, developers of 242-acre Downtown Markham, used art to enliven the urban centre and to establish it as a destination in York Region—even before the city required public art contributions. The $30 million Remington Contemporary Art Gallery (RCAG) uses the entire community as a gallery without walls to display a collection by international artists. Pieces can be found on the main floor of 169 Enterprise Blvd. A second exhibition space has opened at the Toronto Marriott Markham, where visitors will find surrealist sculpture, as well as the New York Times’ Canadian Photo Archive, which contains more than 24,000 photos, acquired by the Rudolph B. Bratty Family Foundation. RCAG’s signature piece is the Pride of Canada Carousel, a working merry-go-round that features 44 surreal Canadian characters made from recycled materials by urban folk sculptor Patrick Amiot, painted by his wife Brigitte Laurent and assembled by Daniel Horenberger. It’s housed in an open glass pavilion at 8080 Birchmount Rd. and operates daily, weather permitting.
Dream Unlimited Corp., developer of numerous Toronto office and residential assets, has contributed multiple sculptures to Toronto’s Distillery District and installations and murals in the city’s Canary District. Recently, Dream, along with Great Gulf and Westdale Properties, were involved with a unique temporary piece to promote Forma, a Toronto mixed-use, twin skyscraper by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry at 266 King St. West. A black-and-white film was released and a 17-foot glowing moon was installed above the site from late May to mid-June to “embody the creative, unique design ethos” of Forma and the artistic neighbourhood. The film follows a young Toronto boy who chases the moon through Toronto streets.
Dream’s portfolio includes eight historical buildings along Bay St. that are being restored and upgraded, and its 330 Bay St. was the site of a massive piece of public art during ArtworxTO: Toronto Year of Public Art, from 2021 to late spring 2022.
“We have a good relationship with the city and reached out to them,” notes Brad Keast, head of innovation and development for Dream Office REIT. “We identified a good opportunity to do something impactful with this facade.”
The city supplied a list of six artists and emerging Toronto portrait photographer Jorian Charlton was chosen. Charlton’s work focuses on Jamaican-Canadian culture through her and her father’s personal experiences. Untitled, depicts two seated identical twin males in dresses and a woman with her hands on their shoulders.
“It was an incredible piece, the colours were vibrant and it was massive,” observes Keast. “It was right on Bay St. and not what you would expect to see there.” He says it generated a lot of buzz until it was taken down to accommodate work on the building’s facade.
“Curators noticed the piece—Jorian’s had a show at the Art Gallery of Ontario since, and her career is taking off,” Keast says.
Untitled is one example of the increasing use of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) artists and themes. In May, Edenshaw Developments unveiled a custom windscreen by James Hart, an internationally renowned Haida artist and master carver, at Tanu Condos in Port Credit. The five-panel windscreen, adjacent to the 15-storey residence entrance, is the public-facing accompaniment to a cast-bronze raven sculpture by Hart in the private courtyard. The windscreen illustrates the story of how the raven stole the world’s first light from the old man who was hoarding it, and then dropped it, shattering it into pieces that became the sun and the stars. The bronze raven has a depiction of celebrated Haida artist (and Hart’s mentor) Bill Reid on its chest.
“It’s a true honour to have had James Hart create these special pieces for Tanu, and we are proud to provide opportunities for Indigenous art to be celebrated, appreciated and admired,” says Edenshaw president and CEO David McComb, who used to live in British Columbia and named his company for Haida chief and creator, Charles Edenshaw. “The sculpture and windscreen will live in perpetuity for the residents of Tanu and Port Credit to enjoy.”
Public art funded by developers and builders is finding its way into communities beyond the GTA. In Barrie, home builder Pratt Homes has commissioned world-renowned Canadian sculptor Ron Baird to create pieces for its nature-inspired, mid-rise development, Elements Condominiums. Baird’s Spirit Catcher is the Barrie city logo, reflecting the community’s pride for First Nations. For Pratt Homes, Baird will create sculptures reflecting the elements of water, fire, earth and air. Two 35-foot-tall, 2,600-pound kinetic sculptures will move in the wind. Two smaller pieces will be on display at the sales office until being placed on the condo grounds.
Construction site hoarding is another way developers are bringing art to communities. Since 2015, a Toronto bylaw has required that a minimum of 50% of hoarding on construction sites be devoted to public community art. Due to its Public Art Through Construction Hoarding (PATCH) exhibit service, STEPS has become a leading provider of these services.
“We as an organization saw an opportunity to provide more income to artists, to have roots in placemaking and to transform places that were largely advertising spaces into exhibit space,” says Solanki. “Often developers will reach out to us, we’ll get a sense of the site, what the hoarding requirement is and work with them based on their desires, or if the councillors want public engagement or a commissioned piece of art.”
Waterfront Toronto’s Shim believes public art policies can have a huge positive impact for cities, adding dimension and richness to neighbourhoods. She notes current trends including incorporation of urban and street art into projects and artwork that promotes diversity, and predicts more interactive art in future. Ontario developers and builders could take inspiration from examples such as an LED-lit bike path in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Musical Swings in the entertainment district of Montreal, where people of all ages and backgrounds swing together to make beautiful melodies.
Toronto resident and photographer Mary Crandall frequently includes public art on her blog, As I Walk Toronto.
“I think art that makes us smile or just brightens our day a little because of its presence is my favourite,” says Crandall, who takes a shine to “quirky” pieces such as CityPlace’s Red Canoe. She also enjoys the coloured glass murals at 155 Redpath condos in the Young-Eglinton neighbourhood (where the Stargate installation also includes colourful space aliens by the artists of Blue Republic).
“Toronto is changing so quickly. There is so much happening, so much development. I am glad that public art is part of that,” Crandall says. “Large condo developments lack soul and character. Smart placement of interesting art can go a long way to add a bit of humanity to the street scene.”
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